In tennis, the hammer — the weapon that can take the racquet out of an opponent’s hand — is the serve. In the face of a hammer, it is up to the opponent to show enough steel to get serves back and create attritional baseline tennis with extended rallies that wear down the quick-strike artist.
This is the clear contrast, the clash of colors which will visit the green lawn of Centre Court Wimbledon in Saturday’s ladies’ singles final. On one side stands the hammer-wielding Czech lefty, Petra Kvitova, a student of the grass-court approach to tennis. On the other side stands baseline-hugging battler Eugenie Bouchard, the first Canadian to make the singles final at a major tennis tournament. (Milos Raonic could become the second on Friday if he beats Roger Federer in the gentlemen’s semifinals.)
If you’re a casual tennis fan and not a diehard who follows the tour on a relatively consistent basis, the nature of Thursday’s semifinals should have illustrated the difference between the two players.
In Thursday’s first semifinal, Kvitova clearly read the first page of the unofficial Owner’s Manual On How To Win Wimbledon. In the process of defeating fellow Czech lefty Lucie Safarova, 7-6 (6), 6-1, Kvitova showed that an 80-minute match with a breadstick second set can still be a well-played match. Such is the nature of grass-court tennis, an ideal glimpse into the way this sport is played on its most organic surface.
We’ve talked about this a lot over the course of Attacking The Net’s coverage of The Championships. Yet, it’s a point that continues to merit more discussion and examination. Why is it that a 6-and-1 match can be a high-quality match? Moreover, very few points in Kvitova-Safarova had more than five strokes, and if you wanted any rallies of at least eight shots, well, this wasn’t the match for you at all. Dizzying, layered, multi-chapter dramas with 25 to 30 shots in the same point? That’s for other surfaces. Heavy topspin, minimal slice backhands, and a more liberal use of drop shots? That’s generally more suited to clay. Grass points don’t last very long — not ordinarily.
Can you have quality tennis even if points are over before you can blink?
Of course you can.
What matters in any discussion of quality is whether various actions are performed well. Men’s tennis is laden with a number of good servers; undeniably, a lot of male players know how to serve well. However, the “good tennis” argument with a lot of those players breaks down when one realizes that they have little with which to back up that serve. If a return game is poor, the groundstrokes lack heft, and the overall inability to challenge a serve is lacking, tiebreaker sets emerge without any sort of drama. Fans and commentators both look at a John Isner-Feliciano Lopez match (such as we had at this year’s Wimbledon) and are immediately inclined to say, “let’s just fast-forward to the tiebreakers, shall we?” That’s not high-quality tennis. It’s competent tennis, but not an elevated brand of ball.
What Kvitova (and to a lesser but still real extent, Safarova) did on Thursday was to create the kind of texture which shapes a gripping grass-court contest.
In the unofficial Owner’s Manual On How To Win Wimbledon, the first page — containing the foremost keys — emphasizes the need to hold serve. Under the umbrella of “holding serve,” one will find subsequent instructions on dominating with the first serve and winning tiebreaker sets against the run of play.
Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are the modern-day authors of the Owner’s Manual On How To Win Wimbledon. They set the standard for a particular kind of practice which men and women will always need at the All-England Club.
Federer and Sampras mastered this specific art, one that — while also found on hardcourts — most naturally emerges as a necessity in the realm of lawn tennis: Winning a tiebreaker set while being largely outplayed. Federer did this against Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick in the 2007 and 2009 Wimbledon finals. Sampras had to conquer the crucible of the tiebreaker many times over to haul in seven Wimbledon crowns himself.
Why can it be said with such certainty that Sampras owns the best first and second serve in the history of tennis, and why has Federer established such a historically consistent serve, one that holds up well in any discussion? Those serves consistently delivered the goods on the surface where the serve — in moments of both strength and weakness — gets exposed more than any other.
This is where the discussion of quality intensifies and reaches its true center.
A serve cannot be exposed unless subjected to a strong return game, the very thing the John Isners of the world lack. When a formidable serve meets a tough return on grass, that’s when the urgency of grass-court tennis emerges in all its fullness. Either the first serve wins the point, or the strong return deep near the baseline — on the worn-out patch where grass gives way to dirt late in the tournament — creates a low bounce that’s very hard for the server to return with any precision or depth. First strikes, either from server or receiver, dictate points. Excelling on these two shots — the first of an exchange for either player — frequently gets most of the work done on a given point on grass.
It’s not as though serve and return can’t or don’t dictate points in this same manner on clay or hardcourts; they do. The difference? Not to the same extent. Grass remains the surface on which break chances — while not necessarily less available — can be missed based on brief lapses within the context of very short points. Since you — as a receiver — are not as likely to get a 20-stroke rally against a strong server, you have to be precise and authoritative on the return and the immediate follow-up shot (if you get one). This is why matches on grass — if involving a bomb-throwing server (or two) — are so essentially different in their styles and contours compared to matches on other surfaces.
It’s also why, if you can serve at a very high level, you can steal sets against the run of play. This is exactly what Kvitova did in the first set against Safarova.
Safarova, making her first-ever appearance in a major semifinal at age 27, was nervous in the first two games, but she shook off her nerves to overpower Kvitova from the backcourt for a 3-2 lead. Safarova was by far the better and more consistent hitter in the first set. On the vast majority of groundstrokes, Safarova jerked Kvitova wide with angles. She took the initiative in points as one must against a formidable grass-court player (Kvitova being the 2011 Wimbledon champion). Safarova played first-strike tennis far better than Kvitova did on any exchange longer than three strokes. After the first two games, there was no doubt that Safarova carried the weight of the match; Kvitova frequently hit her groundstrokes a foot beyond the baseline.
How did Kvitova win the set?
As said above, Safarova won the first-set exchanges more than three strokes. Kvitova — either with unreturnable serves or serves that set up easy putaways on the third stroke in a point — managed to hold serve after being broken for 2-2 in the set. This is the time-honored Wimbledon formula when being outhit from the baseline: lean on the serve, get to the tiebreaker, and win those two extra points you need.
Safarova did her best in that set. Down 2-4 in the tiebreak, she unfurled three jawdropping winners to get to 6-6, but she had merely attained parity on the scoreboard, not an advantage. Kvitova — fortified by the experience of having won Wimbledon before — played with no fear at that most crucial juncture of the match. With Safarova serving at 6-6, Kvitova drilled an excellent return to the worn-out land near the baseline, eliciting a forced error (not an unforced one) and getting the set on her racquet at 7-6. Kvitova’s serve drew a reply from Safarova that was short enough inside the court to clock away with a forehand. In two swift and beautiful strokes, Kvitova captured a set despite being under pressure most of the way.
The points were very short. The players walked from the deuce court to the ad court and back very quickly. The rhythms didn’t allow drama to build in the same way that it does at Roland Garros. Yet, the execution reached a high level. The whole of the set wasn’t quite “great” — Kvitova littered the stat sheet with too many unforced errors. Yet, the set represented a clinic in grass-court tennis from both players. Kvitova proved to be just a bit more clinical in that most important skill: finding a way to win the gun battle on the most revered lawn in tennis.
The second semifinal deserves a much shorter treatment, if only because an ankle injury suffered by Simona Halep prevented her from being — and moving at — her very best. Halep’s game flows from her movement, which enhances her stroke production and her ability to take the ball early, thereby robbing her opponents of time. Halep frequently caught Eugenie Bouchard off balance in this match, but she would have been able to do more had her movement not been compromised.
How was this match won? It was won largely because Bouchard — a player with a rapidly-developing reputation for winning contentious sets — steered through another tight situation thanks to a lucky net-cord winner at 2-4 in a first-set tiebreaker, followed by a brilliant kick serve and volley putaway on set point at 6-5. Bouchard played through the tension of a defining tennis test; in the process of winning that first set, she ensured that Halep would not be able to manage her energies over the final two sets. By winning set one, Bouchard forced Halep to have to win two consecutive sets, a physical mountain the Romanian was not ready to climb in her condition.
The most salient point to make about the nature of this match is that it was very much unlike the first, even though the 7-6 (5), 6-2 scoreline was similar to Kvitova-Safarova. Whereas the Czechs began Semifinal Thursday with a grass-court match, Bouchard and Halep engaged in a hardcourt match.
In Bouchard-Halep, you did not see overwhelming serves — not many of them. You did not see a lot of highly aggressive returns that tried to end points — not nearly as many as you saw in Kvitova-Safarova. This was not first-strike tennis but point-constructing tennis. The rallies of more than seven strokes that couldn’t be found in the first semifinal all made their way to the second one. It was no surprise at all that with Halep’s health well below 100 percent, Bouchard — entirely at home with a baseline-hugging game and a willingness to hit the extra ball — was able to win this more physical and attritional match. Not much more needs to be said about a blockbuster matchup that was affected by an injury to one of the performers.
When Bouchard and Kvitova meet on Saturday, then, you will see a personification of patient tennis from Canada and, across the net, a power merchant from the Czech Republic. Bouchard has turned persistence and pluck into a history-making result for Canadian tennis and all of Canadian sport — surprisingly, on a surface that shouldn’t reward her game as much. Kvitova is a player who does not hold up well in the searing heat of the Australian Open; the slow conditions at Roland Garros; or the smoggy conditions of New York City which cause her allergies to act up. On grass, though, in the quiet of the Wimbledon village, Kvitova is a certified grassmaster, the certification being that she’s won Wimbledon before.
On Saturday, the match will be on Kvitova’s racquet, the hammer of Centre Court. Can that hammer put a dent in Bouchard’s slow-court steel and a very different way of approaching tennis?
If you love contrasts in styles, Saturday’s championship match is made for you.